Released in 1978, Stained Class is one of the most celebrated albums by Judas Priest. Aside from being the first to feature drummer Les Binks, it’s notable for a song entitled Better bye you, Better than me. Originally written by Spooky Tooth, it’s been forever linked to the band, but not for the reason they originally intended.
On December 23rd 1985, James Vance and Raymond Belknap snuck into a church playground with a shotgun intent on taking their own lives. While Belknap died instantly, Vance survived the ordeal—only to be horribly disfigured for the rest of his life. He would later claim that alcohol and their obsession with Judas Priest had lead to the tragic events. This accusation would eventually lead to a lawsuit, claiming a subliminal message of ‘do it’ existed on Better by you, Better than me, and had mesmerized both of them. In 1990, the band was brought to trial in a civil case that would be the subject of the documentary, Dream Deceivers.
The trial itself was the culmination of a decade that had placed heavy metal on the chopping block. The genre had become the scapegoat for an entire generation of angst ridden youths. In the era of ‘Satanic Panic’ the world had seen just about every stone thrown from the establishment at the counter culture. The senate hearings held by the PMRC had been at the forefront, and talk shows and tabloids had many believing that satanic cults were running wild all over America. Priest, like many acts from the time period, had no actual ties to the occult. The only innuendoes that existed on their albums were singer Rob Halford making subtle expressions about his homosexuality, which itself was hidden from public knowledge at the time.
“I made a spike about nine o’clock on a Saturday
All eyes hit me as I walked into the bar
And see the leather guys were fooling with the denim dudes”
– Judas Priest, Raw Deal (Halford/Tipton)
The band, and heavy metal itself was about to be tried in the court of public opinion. In a symbolic display of the documentary’s content, Dream Deceivers is anchored by another track from Stained Class entitled Beyond the Realms of Death. Its bleak description about a child in a depressed and vegetative state is a perfect representation of Vance’s life from the time of the lawsuit. Whenever I’ve sat down with Dream Deceivers, one line from the song in particular stands out: “Keep the world with all its sin, it’s not fit for living in.” Which brings up one of the main points that the documentary decides to focus on—the mental health of both Vance and Belknap.
Vance is interviewed in the very beginning of the film. The failed suicide attempt left his face horribly disfigured, and his features are almost unrecognizable. He’s unable to speak coherently, and when he expresses himself he talks of regret and the love he had for Belknap. At one point he says, “I’d like to call certain people murderers, they murdered Ray.” This one statement sums up much of the documentary, and the outlook from the Vance family—avoiding responsibility and shifting blame onto others.
A considerable amount of time is focused on Vance’s mother, who clearly has an agenda. Her right wing fundamentalist beliefs are on display in what seems to be the perfect example of the culture war from the time period. As one might expect, the families’ home life is far from being pristine and polished. Many stories come forward during the trial about depression and drug addiction, and many of the struggles the parents had with raising their children. It’s this image of Vance’s bleak situation that illustrates the environment that he was a part of. Considering what we know about mental health today, it seems much of this situation could have been helped early on. As some therapists will tell you, “It all starts in the home.” It seems his family were completely oblivious to his situation, and made little effort to assist him. One can only wonder if Vance really believed the music was responsible, his parents put him up to the charade, or he himself lacked the ability to come to terms with it all. No matter what one might think or feel, James Vance’s parents knew they had a child with mental illness, and chose not to do anything about it.
When one thinks of the trial’s purpose, it seems like some conspiracy theory from a basement dwelling nut-job. Subliminal messages being placed onto an album to incite suicide is both outrageous and completely absurd. The very notion of a band being held responsible for the actions of someone else is as ridiculous as it sounds. When other fans are interviewed, this really drives that point home. Many of them are from broken families, and are those on the outer fringe—the rejects of society who feel like they don’t belong. One of them even says, “I had a messed up family life like the Vance kid…” Their devotion to the band is clearly obvious. In their case, it’s a coping mechanism and something to help escape the pressures of day-to-day life. In a similar moment, Rob Halford and guitarist Glenn Tipton recount memories from their own childhood. Halford especially recalls growing up near a foundry, and the noise and dust that came with it. Glenn Tipton is heard to remark that if they weren’t playing music he wouldn’t know what they might be doing.
The scenes with the band are minimal, as most of the documentary opts to focus on Vance, his family, and the case. During the trial however, there’s no denying Rob Halford demonstrates his charisma. A lab team for the defense found a collection of sounds that bear a likeness to someone saying ‘do it.’ To contradict this, Halford brazenly places a stereo on the judge’s bench, and instructs the courtroom to imagine the phrase “I want a peppermint, bring me one now” before playing some reversed music. The results are rather extraordinary, as they play on the power of suggestion. Halford later exclaims his joy with his band mates at showing the courtroom his example.
When the trial concluded, the lawsuit was dismissed, and any messages found on the album were determined to be purely coincidental. A little over a year later, James Vance died of an overdose of medication. That’s how Vance’s story came to its tragic conclusion. However, it was Judas Priest would get the final word in. When they began their tour in support of their album Painkiller, Better by you, Better than me was the opening song at their first concert. It was the first time the band had played the song live since the mid 1970’s. The conclusion of Dream Deceivers is an interesting one. An audio recording plays of James Vance reading the lyrics to Dreamer Deceiver from the Sad Wings of Destiny album. Earlier in the film, he spoke of the suicide attempt as a way for him and Belknap to find something better in life. His reason was that Judas Priest had sung about the cosmos, which gave them hope for salvation.
“Standing by my window, breathing summer breeze
Saw a figure floating, ‘neath the willow tree
Asked us if we were happy, we said we didn’t know
Took us by the hands and up we go
We followed the dreamer through the purple hazy clouds”
-Judas Priest, Dreamer Deceiver (Halford, Tipton, Downing)
As the end credits roll, Halford asks the director why he named the documentary Dream Deceivers. As the director recounts how Vance quoted it, Halford reflects on the song. He can barely remember his own lyrics, and says he never felt the words were profound or meaningful. It goes to show that while Vance and Belknap tried to find an escape, all they did was chase a shadow. Their story is the epitome of a modern day Greek tragedy, one that could have easily been avoided. There is one final note to this sad story. Years later, after the suicide of Kurt Kobain, Vance’s mother appeared on the Maury Povich Show. She spoke of the events that lead to the death of her son, and still held firmly to the belief that the music of Judas Priest was responsible.